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Welcome to a wedding, Central Ukrainian style!
Dear tourists! Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to a wedding in the Ukrainian traditional national style! You’ve never been to one? Then let me, Anna Vorobyeva, a political science student, tell you a story about it.
Birth, marriage and death are among the most important events in human life. Baptism, church wedding and funereal rites are, correspondingly, the most significant events in the life of Orthodox Christians.
There exist all kinds of rituals; there were some invented during the soviet times but they died together with the death of the soviet regime. Some traditional rituals live on all by themselves (in spite of all the technological advances and growing pragmatism) or exist in the forms merged with the rites of the Church. A great many scholarly works have been written about the significance of rites and rituals and about cults and traditions by philosophers, ethnographers, historians of culture and other scholars. We, a group of students of the Spudeyske Bratstvo (Spudey Society) of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NUKMA), after reading many of these works and finding a lot of things in them which were not clear to us, decided to find out for ourselves whether all these rites, rituals and traditions could be of any significance for us, young people of the twenty-first century. Among the three most important ones mentioned at the beginning we chose wedding. Why? Most of us are baptized. The rite of funeral? We are too young for that (besides, if you yourself is the principal figure in it, you would not learn much anyway, would you?). So wedding seemed a very natural choice. But not of the kind that prolongs the soviet tradition — registry office, good wishes pronounced mechanically by an official; laying of flowers at a monument; taking photographs and then a party with too many guests, too much to drink and to eat. True, there are some weddings organized in “an American style but in a Ukrainian way.” We did not want those either. We wanted a traditional Ukrainian church wedding.
Re-enacting a wedding
Back in 2001, our Spudeyske Bratstvo organized a re-enactment of the wedding ceremony, Hutsul style. The powerful effect of this ceremony was observed very soon after the re-enactment — seven participants got married for real within a short time after it. It was then suggested by someone to re-enact another wedding, this time based on the ritual traditions of the Land of Naddnipryanshchyna, in the heart of Ukraine (Hutsul wedding exemplified the Western Ukrainian tradition). There were some objections — what could we expect from the land which was so considerably Russianized and urbanized? It turned out to be a question similar to the Biblical one: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” We started to investigate the details of the Naddnipryanshchyna wedding ceremony and when we found ourselves in the possession of a manuscript with “a transcript” of the wedding ceremony from the village of Auly, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, we immediately realized we wanted to re-enact it. By doing it we would kill two birds with one stone: first, we should reveal the beauty of the ceremony from one of the central regions of Ukraine, and second, we should demonstrate that the Ukrainian nation, in spite of some regional differences, is one, united by the common culture and traditions which are similar all over the Ukrainian land.
So, a number of students from the NUKMA’s Spudeyske Bratstvo, jointly with the Youth and Family Department of the Kyiv State Administration, the RODOVID Publishers, the Ivan Honchar Museum, the Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazine, the ART VELES Art Agency, the bands Drevo and Dobryden, staged a wedding ceremony the way it has come down to us from the centuries past.
Wedding for real
It was just the middle of the autumn. The harvesting was over; the rich harvest taken in; the period of fasting (there are several such periods observed by the Orthodox Church throughout the year) ended, but the sun was still warm enough. In fact, it is really a season of many weddings in the Ukrainian countryside.
This time the bride and bridegroom were really going to get married but much of the ceremony, based on the age-old traditions was re-enacted by us.
The preparations for the wedding begin long before the wedding ceremony itself and the observance of all the appropriate ceremonies and celebrations lasts for up to two weeks, so that everybody involved would fully appreciate the significance and the joy of it.
The whole process begins with a party (made up of friends and relatives) from the potential bridegroom coming to the bride’s place. They open negotiations and if the bride is willing, the next stage begins. If she does not want to marry that boy, she gives the delegation a pumpkin, a sign of refusal.
In our case we knew how the negotiations would end, but just for the fun of it, we kept the talks going for quite some time. Marriage is supposed to keep two people together for all their life “until death does them apart” and it would be improper to show any haste in a matter like this.
For several days before the wedding ceremony, every day is a special one, a sacrament, a mystery. After the negotiations are completed to the satisfaction of both parties, come ohlyadyny (taking a look at the bride); vypikannya korovayu (baking special wedding bread); prykrashannya hiltsya (decorating a tree branch); divych vechir (a sort of a hen party); rozplitannya molodoyi (unbraiding the bride’s plaits); vinchannya (church wedding); pochesna v khati molodoho (reception in the house of the bridegroom); rozpodil korovayu (cutting and sharing of the wedding bread). All of these main stages turn out to be the same in the Land of Hutsulshchyna and in the Land of Naddnipryanshchyna. This article would turn into a scholarly ethnographic treatise if I told you in detail about each of the stages of the wedding ceremony and I do not intend to do that. I’ll just share my impressions.
The shirts of girls as they were made in the nineteenth century, wrap not only your body in warmth but give a loving warmth to the heart. Shirts were embroidered and there are 180 different techniques of embroidery known! Some of the techniques are very complicated and time-consuming. Not necessarily colour threads were used and there is embroidery of white on white, but the result is always gorgeous. All kinds of symbols and symbolic patterns were used in decorating shirts and a village girl wearing such a shirt always looks a beauty, a proud swan.
Before her wedding, the fiancee had to make enough clothes (everyday and Sunday) and bed linen to last her a very long time since after the marriage all of her time would be taken by taking care of her husband, managing her household and children. The shirts were mostly made and embroidered before marriage when this kind of work could be inspiring and even romantic (and it did take a lot of time to make and embroider shirts — days and days would be spent on just one shirt). Such a strict approach to putting together the dowry is a characteristic feature of the Land of Naddnipryanshchyna; white embroidery on a white shirt is also typical of Naddnipryanshchyna. Another specific feature of this land — checkered plakhta (a sort of a skirt) of a specific cut. But a small wreath of flowers, usually periwinkle, worn by the bride is part of the bride’s wedding attire found in all parts of Ukraine. Ukrainians preserved their faith, their traditions, even to such a small detail, wherever they lived, no matter under what conditions or under whose rule.
The ethnographer O. Voropay who studied, among other things, the traditions and peculiarities of Ukrainian wedding ceremony, calls upon Ukrainian girls of today to abandon the international style of veils and white wide skirts and to return to age-old Ukrainian traditions in the wedding costume, the flower wreath included.
This coronet of flowers is not only beautiful — it has a lot of symbolic meaning as well. Periwinkle in Ukrainian tradition is a symbol of eternal and faithful love; guilder rose — of female beauty; yarrow — of strength and vigor; green shoots of garlic — of health, and so on. Besides, in addition to flowers, all kinds of fragrant herbs (basilisk, thyme, mint and others) are braided into the wreath, which, when you wear it for some time, can make your head spin even without your fiance being close by your side.
When I looked at the flower wreath on the head of our bride, I could not help thinking, “Girls, have a good look at this, what a beauty! Make yourselves as beautiful, crown yourselves with such wreaths of natural beauty!” Incidentally, the bride is refereed to as “princess” and her bridegroom as “prince”, and the wedding is their “coronation” ( it’s the same both in Hutsulshchyna and in Naddnipryanshchyna).
Marriage opens a qualitatively new period in the life of two people who get married and they are shown a particular respect during the wedding period; they don’t join the rest of the young people for games and merry-making; they sit on “a throne”; when they have to move from place to place, they are escorted; when the distance requires riding in a wagon, this wagon is decorated with flowers and ribbons.
Wedding is not just a celebration — it’s the time when you should think about the future. According to Ukrainian tradition it is the bride who leaves the home of her parents and moves to her husband’s house, and she must prepare herself for it psychologically. Her carefree days are over; before the wedding she does not dance and does not sing, just sits and broods (hence Ukrainian saying, sydyt’ yak zasvatana — she sits there as though she were engaged to be married). She is not supposed to show her joy either. Those who unbraid her plaits before the wedding sing very sad, slow songs. They are sung with the voice trembling deep in the throat and when I hear them I can’t help thinking of a hot day in the sun-scorched steppe, with a wagon languidly moving across the fields. The main theme of these songs is the forthcoming marriage; though the hair that has been cut after the unbraiding will grow again, the married woman cannot go back to her parents’ place. I find these pre-wedding songs very moving. There is something wise and charming in this tradition.
The parties that represent both the bride and the bridegroom engage in performing all kinds of traditional rituals — bandying jokes and taunts, usually in the form of songs; ransoming the bride, and others. Such rituals must have come down to us from time immemorial when the structure of society was entirely different and marriage was the way of producing children and raising them in an established household rather than the union of two people who love each other. The meaning of some rituals is more or less clear, but in other cases it has been lost.
In bandying songs, for example, in dances — who will outdance who — girls had the opportunity to show their talents, their strength (folk dances do require a lot of physical stamina to perform). They tried to look their possible best, wearing their best, brightest and richest clothes. There was always a chance to find a fiancee among the guests at somebody else’s wedding.
One of the discoveries for us was the dribushky hairstyle which reminded me of the African-style cornrows. We found dribushky mentioned and described in some of the ethnographic materials we read when we were doing our research. Of course, those dribushky plaits whose number was up to 48, looked a little different from the cornrows of today, and the way of braiding them was also different, but the general effect was about the same.
The bridegroom and his party had to be “real smart” and inventive to perform the prescribed rituals some of which were somewhat — to put it mildly — out of the way: for example, bridegroom’s washing the feet of his mother-in-law with vodka. Even obtaining the right to sit by your wife after the wedding was not that simple — you had to show a lot of diplomatic skills!
Wedding rituals of the Land of Naddnipryanshchyna turned out to be far from commonplace. I was fascinated and enchanted by the re-enactment.
I further discovered that the main theme of the wedding, unexpected as some of the things were, was the expression, done in various ways, of gratitude to God and the parents whose blessing is reverentially sought. Every symbolic stage of the wedding celebrations (baking wedding bread, decorating a branch, and so on) begins with addressing God and the parents with a request for blessing. I saw that in the traditional Ukrainian marriage, the union of husband and wife was given an extra-strength by the triple blessing of God, church and parents. Could it be the main reason why marriage in the countryside was up to recent times so enduring?
No, I’m not calling upon you to go through a traditional wedding — it takes too much time, and we, people, of the twenty-first century cannot spare two weeks for weddings. Besides, traditional rituals of the past have lost much of their former authority and symbolism. We are free to choose, we do not have to go through the church rites if we do not want to, but at the same time, there is something in the traditions and rituals of the past that attracts us, that makes our hearts beat faster. I feel something rising from the depths of my unconscious and taking hold of me when I watch these rituals performed, and particularly when I take part in them.
I am convinced that by preserving and maintaining some of the rituals of the past we, young people of the technologically advanced twenty-first century, enrich ourselves with cultural heritage that no technology can give us.
Photos by Oleksiy Onishchuk